Directed by: Trivikram Srinivas , Koratala Siva [2, 3] || Produced by: D. Kishore, M. Ram Mohan , Y. Naveen, Y. Ravi Shankar, C. V. Mohan , DVV Danayya 
Screenplay by: Trivikram Srinivas , Koratala Siva [2, 3] || Starring: Mahesh Babu [1–3], Sonu Sood Sayaji Shinde, Kota Srinivasa Rao, M. Nassar, Sunil Varma, Rahul Dev, Kanneganti Brahmanandam, Shruti Haasan, Jagapathi Babu, Rajendra Prasad , Kiara Advani, R. Sarathkumar, Aamani, Devaraj, Posani Krishna Murali, P. Ravi Shankar, Rao Ramesh, Brahmaji , Prakash Raj [1, 3]
Music by: Mani Sharma , Devi Sri Prasad [2, 3] || Cinematography: K. V. Guhan  R. Madhi , Ravi K. Chandran, S. Thirunavukarasu  || Edited by: Sreekar Prasad [1, 3], Kotagiri Venkateswara Rao  || Country: India || Language: Telugu
Running Time: 172 minutes , 158 minutes , 174 minutes  || 1 = Athadu, 2 = Srimanthudu, 3 = Bharat Ane Nenu
During my recent binge of Telugu cinema (I’ll explain, somehow, at a later date), I’ve absorbed so many cinematographic trends, repeated character archetypes (often, stereotypes), distinct costume designs, and narrative motifs characteristic to South Indian film industries in general and Telugu cinema in particular that the details of most of these films escaped me. This is not uncommon when one discovers a popular culture phenomenon or artistic subculture with which they were previously unfamiliar. Like a dedicated cultural exchange program, one doesn’t memorize novel languages and cultural mores like a computer so much as they learn to “go with the flow” and navigate foreign social situations on pure instinct. As rough as that analogy may seem, my prior exposure to Hindi Cinema and South Asian culture helped me interpret certain plot-points, character arcs, and stylized cinematographic flourishes better than if I had otherwise watched over a dozen (I’m not kidding) Telugu movies in a row, cold.
My obsessive-compulsive personality and commitment to this blog, however, assure that all — OK, most — of these film binges are dissected and overanalyzed down to each individual feature, hence these impromptu review “volumes” of Telugu movies. Today’s subjects are a series of vehicles for action star and Telugu staple, Mahesh Babu, two of which are written and directed by Koratala Siva and one by Trivikram Srinivas, both well established directors of contemporary Telugu cinema
My enjoyment of Athadu (English = “Him”) was better explained once I realized it was helmed by Srinivas, whose Ala Vaikunthapurramuloo (2020) I also liked and reviewed in my first Volume of Telugu reviews. Like Vaikunthapurramuloo, Athadu benefits from a dry, almost deadpan sense of humor that prevents the movie’s bombastic action from dominating too much of the audience’s attention. Srinivas spends enough time building Babu’s protagonist from a scrappy, violent youth of the slums in the film’s memorable prologue to a feared hitman of the mafia underground that his character’s over-the-top violence feels somewhat believable. Athadu’s “thief with a heart of gold” story isn’t unique by a long shot —- Babu’s hired gun is betrayed by his mafia employers during a critical assassination attempt and thereafter seeks shelter in a remote village, whose citizenry he adopts — but Babu’s relationship with the supporting cast feels genuine enough for his arc to work.
Cartoonish action remains plentiful throughout, as Athadu is still a mainstream Telugu genre film. Its finale features terrible, awful, early-2000s digital FX and composite backgrounds, but that’s a singular blemish on an otherwise effective formulaic blockbuster.
Transitioning to Siva’s Srimanthudu (“The Wealthy Man”) and Bharat Ane Nenu (BAN, “I, Bharat”), Babu’s star demeanor feels noticeably dumber and more simplistic relative to Srinivas’ sardonic sense of humor and attention to characterizations. Both films star Babu as the scion of influential Indian oligarchs dealing with their father’s legacy in either state politics (BAN) or rural development (Srimanthudu); Babu engages in both physical altercations and socioeconomic policymaking to defeat the bureaucratic corruption and organized crime syndicates that defeated his ancestors. A prodigal son battling the demons of his family’s past is interesting at face-value, but the way Siva portrays his hero’s solutions to complex sociopolitical phenomena is heavy-handed even for your typical blockbuster. Every single problem in both movies is solved by either Babu’s “inspirational” speeches that go on forever or better yet, comical fistfights shot in super slow-motion a la The Matrix (1999).
I might not have a problem with this if either (A) these scenes weren’t so boring or (B) Siva had a better sense of humor about his over-the-top style, if he approached fight sequences or key monologues with the mindset of, say, Edgar Wright. As they are, though, Babu is portrayed as an inexplicable, borderline invincible superhero in Srimanthudu and BAN; his fight sequences are free of any tension, whatsoever, while his on-the-nose monologues feel like they’re filling screentime and patronizing the audience. At least Athadu justified Babu’s formidability with a lengthy backstory, while Siva’s sole explanation for Babu suffering nary a scratch in countless, wholly unnecessary action scenes is that he’s the main character. So, deal with it.
A further notable aspect of all three of these films are Mahesh Babu’s musical skills, or rather his lack thereof. Throughout Indian cinema, I’m so habituated to veteran actors molded by some of the world’s premiere choreographers and dance instructors that Babu’s stiff hips and limited athleticism on the dance floor are jarring. I would complain more about these movies’ song numbers, save for the fact they’re overshadowed by action set-pieces in Athadu and that Siva tries his best to direct around Babu’s inflexible figure with elaborate sets and talented backup dancers.
All in all, this trio of Mahesh Babu features contrast not only Koratala Siva and Trivikram Srinivas’ directorial styles, but also Babu’s effectiveness as an action star. Babu has limited range beyond playing the bad boy who’s secretly great at everything, while his disinterest in all three films’ elaborate song numbers and lackluster chemistry with most of his costars imply his movies’ successes are dependent on the filmmaker directing him, which explains my preference for Athadu over Bharat Ane Nenu and especially Srimanthudu. If you’re a fan of Telugu Cinema in particular or South Indian Cinema more broadly, you’ll enjoy the latter two films’ visual spectacle enough to compensate for Babu’s two-dimensional protagonists and the films’ simplistic stories. All newcomers should stick with just Athadu, however, as Srinivas’ competent screenwriting keeps its star likable, his arc relatable, and the film’s action spectacle, not too self-important.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: The upsides of Athadu, Srimanthudu, and Bharat Ane Nenu are their production values, admirable location-photography, and stylized camerawork. Athadu outclasses the rest given its patient screenplay and a better than average arc for its star.
— However… Athadu suffers from early 2000s-era computer generated imagery and distracting composite shots in one particularly bad, yet critical scene. Srimanthudu and Bharat Ane Nenu, on the other hand, are built atop predictable, pandering narratives with zero tension and paced with action scenes where our hero almost never takes a punch. Babu’s stilted dancing doesn’t help matters, either.
—> Athadu comes RECOMMENDED, while Srimanthudu and Bharat Ane Nenu are NOT RECOMMENDED.
? I like how Babu’s strategy for ending corruption in Andhra Pradesh is explained away as just, “Let’s get rid of corruption in Andhra Pradesh.” Who knew it could be so simple?